Friday, November 30, 2007

I want to drive a Gran Turismo (GT)!!!!

It's not fair I have to drive my Jalopy!

If there's nothing to do, something MUST be done. If something MUST be done, we must do something ELSE. In this spirit, educational pundits frequently feel the need to exert their powerful influence over those below them by issuing a pedagogical mandate requiring a course of action that requires much action, but little course or direction. The latest such mandate targets our school's Gifted and Talented (GT) program.

Apparently, it is time to take our focus off of all the other aforementioned pedagogical mandates we are still trying to interpret and focus on how we are currently serving the needs of high school students who were targeted long, long ago in their educational careers as creative, unique, clever, quirky, and insightful--GT. At our school, as is the case in most large high schools nation-wide, we "service" our GT students through our College Board certified Pre-Advanced Placement and Advanced Placement courses. These courses are academically rigorous and intellectually challenging courses that prepare students for college curriculum and expectations.

In teaching these classes, I challenge each and every student, teaching in a variety of ways, from lecture, to discussion, to telling, demonstrating, and modeling appropriate learning and mathematical procedure. I teach beyond the standards--to EVERY student in the class.
I have found that the willing will always rise to the challenge. But because we ARE still high school and not college, there are so opportunities for success built into the class that even those lacking ability can compensate by perseverance and pertinacity.

Math tends to be the great equalizer in our school. Some can do it, some cannot. Some TRY, some do not. Those that cannot and do not usually have exerted nothing but pathetic deliberation in their choice of excuses rather than real, hard-nosed industry. I believe most, if not all, of our great PreAP and AP teachers would cite the same reason for most students' failures. It's not necessarily that the material is beyond them, but rather seems beneath them.

Because of our "open enrollment" policy for PreAP and AP classes (which means that students can be in the "smart" classes despite their intelligence, motivation, and work ethic), non-GT students can be enrolled in a program designated to serve our GT students. The didactic dilemma has been now clearly pointed out to us!!!!! How to we keep the
spark of creativity and the flame of imagination alive in those GT students who are now mixed with the "others?"

That's what we are now required to provide written documentation of: how are we teachers of PreAP and AP students differentiating our curriculum for the GT students?
Aside from the fact that I teach EVERY student as if they were GT, making them write mathematical limericks, probing deep theoretical implications, and doing ink-blot tests for warm-ups, the most frustrating thing about this latest mandate, is that I see my own son getting very little out of HIS GT status. He is only in second grade, but is already growing academically disinterested in school. HIS GT program is a pull-out program, which he actually looks forward to, as he gets a chance to do non-routine work, interact with other curious friends who are at his reading level, and talk about more than "Hannah Montana."

So much attention and resources are thrown at the bottom end of the spectrum that, outside the twice-weekly GT sessions, anyone and everyone who is on par or ahead of the 2nd grade curriculum has their curiosity and spark potentially extinguished, while all the "others" (who will eventually take PreAP and AP classes) are remediated.

What I have seen in teaching high school for 9 years, is that by the time students are juniors and seniors taking college level classes, there is very little distinction (or need to distinguish) among GT and non-GT students. In fact, many GT students themselves have forgotten their once-given classification, as they realize that their interests and imagination have plenty of fuel in the course of a rigorous, challenging, stimulating PreAP or AP curriculum. Those non-GTers, will likely tell you the same thing!

Yesterday, I asked one of my GT Calculus students if she thought that her "GT-ness" was dwindling as a consequence of being in my class: if she felt her gifted and talented needs were being adequately catered to. She had no idea what I meant! She looked at me with a strange anticipatory smirk as if there was a punchline. There wasn't. Apparently, she had long ago dropped any expectation of special treatment or hopes of a "differentiated curriculum" because of the 2nd grade test that qualified her for the GT program. She felt almost overwhelmingly challenged and stimulated in all of her current AP classes, probably TOO challenged.

I then probed her on the possibility of a differentiate curriculum, asking her how she would feel if other non-GTers in the class were suddenly not responsible or accountable for the more challenging problems I routinely assigned. Or, what if I took some of her more basic assignments were replaced with more "thought-provoking, multi-stepped" GT problems. I assured her that the QUANTITY of her work would not increase, only the QUANTITY of TIME should would have to spend on the problems of improved QUALITY. She looked at me as if I were crazy and dismissed my ranting like any good GT student (or nonGT student) would.

But, nonetheless, the mandate came out so something must be done. What will likely end up happening is that I will submit a very proper, pedagogically perfect, lesson plan that has a diversity of instructional techniques incorporated, using all the latest educational buzz words like "anticipatory set," "think-pair-share," and "group collaboration." It will be sure to include a special "feel good" activity for the elite in the group, although it will be surreptitiously implemented so that the "others" do not detect it. Once submitted and in the authorities hand, they will check my name off some list which will prove that I am doing my A-L-L as a professional teacher to reach A-L-L students.

Or perhaps I will just differentiate for GT by not allowing them to turn in late work. That's simple enough.

It is frustrating, though, because rather than talk to the students (both GT and "others") who are actually in my classes and getting first-person accounts of how "stimulating" my class is, much less actually observe my classes in earnest over a period of several days or weeks, they prefer cursory 10 minute walk-throughs to gauge my level of professionalism, and insist on a paperwork submission, including a form acknowledging that the paperwork was actually submitted. I hope to then receive a paper receipt of my paper submission acknowledging that I'm approved to continue to teach our GT kids (and the "others.")

It's hard to stay optimistic and motivated as a soldier in the trenches when the generals do nothing but send orders to "do better . . . . or else" from their comfy leather chairs at headquarters. It has been said that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to figure out what the main thing is!

Is it equating Equal Opportunity with Equal Equal Outcome? What an unfortunate, well-documented world that will be.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Running out of Thoughts

Last night I was feeling restless so I decided to go for a run. The kids were watching Christmas cartoon specials on TV, while my wife was relaxing on the couch watching the kids, although I secretly think she is a fan of "Shrek the Halls." Not being much of a TV person, rather than wait out the clock for 8:45 to roll around (when I was scheduled to meet Mr. Wenzel, my running compatriot), I left the house for the high school track at 7:30.

After a few awkward stretches (I'm about as flexible as a cold, plastic spoon), I turned on my redeeming .mp3 player and with my running gloves, my long-sleeved compression under shirt, my winter cap, and comfy shoes, I started running. Much like Forrest Gump, I just ran, and ran, and ran, with not real goal of when I'd stop.

I have always wondered what goes through people's minds when they're running, because I struggle personally with fighting off such negative thoughts as, "Man, this really suck!" "Why am I doing this again?" "I really shouldn't have eaten that bowl of chili for dinner." "I'd rather be driving my car." You get the idea: running is more of a psychological battle than a physical one. But don't think there aren't any physical consequences. I run through all sorts of aches and pains like abdominal cramps, piercing pain in my right shoulder, stiff neck, sore Achilles tendon, and little things like my sock wadding up against my big toe. It's funny though, that I only feel these pains when I'm thinking about them. If I can force them out of my mind, which isn't easy, I don't feel them at all.

Which is why I rely so much on my music, which provides somewhat of a diversion for my over-active brain.. But my mind does wander as much as my feet. Last night I thought about such varied topics as separable differential equations, my plans for Christmas break, what those strange sounds coming from under the darkened bleachers is, and what my family was doing at home without me, hoping they missed me. I also cannot help but afford some attention to the other runners who come and go during my endurance session.

I'm not a fast runner, but I'm not slow either. I can average 7 minute miles at 3-mile distances, but last night, I was averaging 9.5 minute miles. Last night, as I was finishing up mile 5, a young, athletic-looking man arrived and fell in about 50 yards behind me. Knowing he's there ignites my competitiveness a bit, so I pick up my pace ever so slightly, one I know I can sustain. After about one lap, I heard his pounding feet approaching behind me. I figured, with him being a young male, that he would simulate an artificially fast pace as he went by me, and adjust his breathing to appear like he was not panting (at least, that's what I tend to do.) True to masculine form, he zipped by me before I could even nod him "hello." I noticed he slowed his pace after he felt he was comfortably ahead of me, in the shadows of the night. Before long (within 800 meters), he slowed to a trot, and I coasted right by him. For whatever reason, shame, embarrassment, or fatigue, he finished walking his lap and left the track for the evening. I felt like the victorious tortoise defeating the hare. The next lap I took I called my "victory lap!"

There was another man who arrived shortly after I did last night, an older man who obviously had bad knees. This man was an inspiration to watch. He ran at a very slow, but very steady pace, looking like Rocky Balboa beneath his hooded jacket. Unlike a champion prize-fighter, he struggled with every step, stepping gingerly along the track. I did not expect to him last very long, but each lap I took, he was still there, like FDR's presidency. When he could run no more, he walked on soft grass just inside the track to recover, but each time, he would start up again. I think the entire 95 minutes I was out there, I only lapped him 6 times, each time giving him a reassuring nod of encouragement. His drive and determination to push himself gave me renewed spirit of determination and appreciation for individuals who push themselves beyond what is easy, convenient, or comfortable. I'd like to think that my being out there gave HIM a little extra motivation as well. Although we never exchanged words, there was a shared energy and esprit de corps between us, each outlasting our epicurean urges to stop.

Ten miles (and 40 laps) after I started, I was dizzy and depleted, so I decided to shut it down. "Ten is such a nice, round number. 5 times 2, the square root of 100. 3 factorial plus the cubed-root of 64. Yes 10 is good!" Although I did not PR on my average time (I once ran a 40-yard sprint in 4.67 seconds, an average time of 3 minutes and 25 seconds per mile!), I did PR on distance. My euphoric "runner's high" lasted well into the evening, even after I got home, showered, and hit the sack. In fact, I lay awake until 2:00am enjoying my accomplishment and thinking of my unknown friends I had met at the track that night. At last, I fell asleep and had sweet dreams of separable differential equations.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What time is it?

At our school, we have this class we call "Unicorn Time." Basically, it is a 21 minute block of time that serves as a homeroom class where progress reports can be distributed, standardized tests given, announcements administered, and Sportscenter can be viewed.

Originally conceived in haste several years ago as a structured time slot to work on TAKS remediation, the concept has not progressed beyond the inchoate rudiments. At first, I was one of the two chosen math gurus responsible for creating material that each teacher with a Unicorn Time (UT) class could deliver to all students. This included creating detailed handouts with problem descriptions and worked-out solutions that a layperson could follow. We also created Powerpoint presentations and videos that could be projected on the closed-circuit televisions to accompany the awesome handouts. This cycle repeated itself every 4 weeks as the core subjects of English, Social Studies, Science, and Math took turns.

All this sounds good in theory, but it also had several flaws:

First of all, for me, the benefits of NOT having a UT class were outweighed by the added burden of creating all the materials, which went largely unappreciated. Teachers were very uncomfortable, reluctant, and vocally opposed to the idea of teaching something outside their area of expertise, even if it was on a basic-skill level. I think many who complained did so out of reflex, a sense of duty, or on principle, without actually trying. My handouts were so detailed that ANY teacher could have effectively implemented the lesson simply by reading the commentary and following my stage directions.

Additionally, although we expected ALL students to listen and absorb the lesson, work the practice problems, and diligently work through the solutions to learn from their mistakes, we NEVER associated any type of grade to their efforts. Consequently, their efforts went from initially lukewarm to apathetic aloofness after that. How could those UT teachers that were taking the lessons seriously, modeling good learning behavior by teaching a foreign subject, hold students' feet to the fire when their only recourse was to hold unwilling students in low esteem? The program had no teeth, no hook. Relying on the students to be self-motivated or for UT teachers to motivate them is, although idyllic, is pragmatically preposterous!

Another failing of the "idea of the century" is the limited time constraint. Twenty-one minutes is a relatively short amount of time to implement a successful remediation plan to the masses. With UT being used for television school announcements (including skits by our broadcast journalism class), pledge to the flags, and other nuts-and-bolts activities such as taking roll, report card issuance, and student assemblies, there is only 8-10 good minutes left. Assuming I had an eager, captive audience, I can work some mathematical magic in less time than that, but the audience was typically more interested in other things, like watching the clock on the wall wishing they were somewhere else. The result was a vacuous treatment of compulsory material that was delivered without conviction and rebuffed with adolescent disdain.

And so the prescription has been filled year after year, but alas, some things HAVE changed. I am no longer responsible for creating documents and videos to be used during UT. Now, I have my own group of UTers. In fact, there are not TAKS handouts that we have to teach. The instructional videos come on so randomly that we never know when to expect them or what they will be covering. Most of the videos show are above TAKS level questions that happen to have come with some course's ancillary materials. To be sure, I demand that my students pay attention to the videos when they are on , and I even go over the question with the class, but most sit quietly out of respect for ME, and not out of any real desire to improve their cause, after all, there is no grade for UT.

Many teachers have suggested viable, meaningful changes to maximize the benefits of UT. One alternative is to assign incoming freshman with a specific teacher with whom they would keep in UT all four years. The argument is that the teacher would become like a 4-year mentor to the students and get a chance to develop longer-term relationship with more substance. When not teaching TAKS material, class could focus on character development, study skills, or stand-up comedy--anything but babysitting.

Another suggestion is to assign grades to UT and to place those students who are weak in math (for math ALWAYS gets the most attention when scores hit the public) into classrooms of MATH teachers!!! Hello!!!! Most of us are more than willing to take on the responsibility of doing this, even though it would require increase effort and work. Would it be unfair that other, non-core teachers would not have to teach during UT? Sure!! But if helping out weak students is what we are trying to do, and math is typically the targeted subject, it's something we WANT to do as conscientious professionals. Currently, it is a waste of our resources to have a diversity of students who have nothing in common except their graduation class and the first letter of their last name. Although we have eagerly asked for this, and were told that it could and WOULD happen . . . . . . . . . . it hasn't.

Each year as school starts and the powers-that-be are busy fighting fires, reacting to events happening around them, the issue UT gets put on the back-burner (I mean the storage closet.) And so, students appear in their UT class to meet their UT teacher, to enjoy another year in UT filled with wasted time.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Coaching Carousel

As the latest round of college and NFL football coaches get fired, hired, and resign, I look on and wonder who will fill their shoes. It seems like their is a fixed number of coaches and exactly one less coaching positions. Coaches just move around from one job to another hoping to get a fresh start and some decent school colors. By the pigeonhole principle, there's always one coach forced to stand on the sidelines for a season or two, waiting for another opening while he offers his color commentary on coaching vacancies for a sports network.

Most recently, Mike Sherman was given a 7-year 1.8 million dollar contract to replace Dennis Franchione at A&M, who stepped down within hours of beating UT for the second consecutive year. Although he was never able to recover from the sale of his inside information and game commentary, this incident will look good on his resume when he interviews with ESPN's Sportscenter as and inside-overweight-analyst. Sherman, his replacement, has been like an Aggie boomerang, including TWO different stints with A&M as their offensive line coach as he has traveled past such NFL teams as the Packers and Texans. Sherman apparently told his wife that they were going to go so far this time as to UNPACK their moving boxes. Whether or not they'll actually get any pictures hung is yet to be determined.

While one college was installing an NFL coach, another school, Georgia Tech, was canning another--Chan Gailey, former Dallas Cowboy coach, who rode out the Jimmie Johnson's (who later went to Miami for a stint) and Barry Switzer's (former OU coach) Super Bowl teams to a dead stop, short of the big game. Oh, Chan will land somewhere else for sure, probably at a chinese food buffet, where he'll turn down the job of head chef to accept another position as an NFL coach.

In Nebraska, legendary Tom Osborne wasted no time in giving the axe to former NFL coach, Bill Callahan. What Bill was unable to do for the Oakland Raiders, he was able to repeat for the proud program in Cornhusker land. So where does Bill go next? NFL, College, . . . . I think it's safe to say there will be a losing high school football program somewhere next year.

A shocker came yesterday when Houston Nutt stepped down at Arkansas after upsetting number one LSU (whose own head coach is interviewing for OTHER vacancies!) last week. Having experience several thousand heartbeats as Razorback coach during his 10-year stint, he cited vague reasons for walking out on his contract, saying that the organization could not beat as a single heart beat. So where does a Nutty coach end up? Rumor is he will become spokesperson for the Chicot Memorial Children's Hospital's Cardiac Ward.

Last year, Nick Saban left his cab running while he was in Miami. Having left his remarkable LSU program at the height of its game, Saban lasted two years in Miami, after which he literally jumped ship, right back into that cab, and headed to Alabama. I guess you know when the NFL is not for you, or perhaps you just know when a team is soooo bad that the money is just not worth it. What Jimmie Johnson, Dave Wanstead, and Nick Saban could not do is now in the hands of 0-11 Dolphin coach Cam Cameron, who, last night, lost 0-3 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not only was it the lowest scoring game in Monday Night Football history, but it was the 6th time this year that the Dolphins have lost by 3 points or fewer. This begs the question, "Which college will Cameron be coaching next year?" You'd better believe that there is a desperate school who's saying to themselves, "Sure he's 0-11, but he's got NFL experience. We sure could use a guy like that! Think of all the close, barn-burning, nail-biters we'll lose! Our fans will appreciate the drama."

There are also openings at Baylor, Southern Mississippi, and coveted Michigan. Some lucky coach will get the daunting job of taking over these programs, getting a chance to make a name for himself one way or another. In the business where winning is everything, as long as everyone is happy too, the carousel will continue to go round and round each year. But as organizations will always realize, the person they hire won't the be person they want to keep. They will always be looking for greener pastures.

In public education, although many teachers cycle through different schools and districts, they do so without press conferences or contract buy-outs. It's actually harder to get rid of a "losing" teacher than it is a losing coach. I was once told that the only way fire a teacher is for financial mishandling of school money and getting caught on the highway with a goat!

So I guess I'm glad that, although I don't make the 1.8 million dollar per year plus salaries that coaches make, I DO have my pictures hanging on my wall at home--pictures of my wife, my kids, and my agent.

Monday, November 26, 2007

TAKSing Data

In early October, I gave a benchmark test in my PreAP Precalculus classes to see what my students' strengths and weaknesses were in 7 of the 10 objectives they are required to master on a standardized test in April. Not surprisingly, my students did very well.

This is actually the first year I have ever taken an entire day of class instruction to give the test in class. Having motivated (for the most part), highly-intelligent, college-bound, academically competitive students, the math skills on the state-required TAKS test are far below what I have them doing in class. This year, giving the test in class, did allow me to get another quiz grade in, and give the students a "blast from the past" feeling as most of them breezed through one of the easiest tests they have seen in a long time. But notice I did say MOST.

Of my 70 students who took the benchmark, only one student earned below a 70% score. At a 66%, he confessed to me that he got off on his numbering on the Scantron when he bubbled in his answer choices. Of the remaining 69 students, there were only two other scores in the 70s, one of which was a 79. Only 12 scores were in the 80s, leaving the remaining 55 students earning an A, eight of which were perfect 100s. I'm such an awesome teacher!!

But TAKS is a minimum skills test, and since my students are doing math that is preparing them for calculus and eventual careers in math, science, and engineering, you'd expect ALL of them to make 100s, but they didn't!! I'm such a horrible teacher!!

But before I start "teaching to the test," I need to take a serious look at one objective in particular--Objective 9: Percents, Proportions, Probability, and Statistics. An alarming 26 students out of 70 (37%) missed at least one of the two questions covering these concepts, with three people missing BOTH questions. Why is that?

One question was a definitional question of central tendency, whereby students had to choose the correct statistic describing a pattern that occurred the MOST. Easy, the "MODE" is the "MOST." Mean, Median, and Range all describe different aspects of data. 23 of students not mastering this objective did not miss this one. But even then, this might be forgivable, since these terms do not come up in any class at the high school except Statistics itself, which is typically a senior-level class. The last time students were exposed to these terms was when they were initially exposed to them in 7th or 8th grade. Even then, many of these students went directly into pre-algebra in 7th grade and algebra in 8th grade, which means they perhaps never were officially taught it. But bright kids can pick these types of things up in the peripheral.

The culprit for the disastrous turnout was a question about percentage:

Janet is choosing between two brands of AAA batteries for her graphing calculator. A package or three Brand M batteries costs $5.50, and a package of three brand P batteries costs $3.85. What percent of the cost of Brand M batteries did Janet save by buying a package of Brand P batteries?
F. 17% G.30% H. 43% J. 70%

The correct answer is G. 30%

What made this question so difficult? Well, for starters, it combines English with Math, and anytime students have to READ to do a MATH problem, they panic because they must squeeze their own juice! Perhaps they don't know who Janet is as why she is so concerned with figuring out her savings, I mean, buy the cheap ones already!!! Or better yet, borrow a teacher's calculator and exchange the batteries out.

Some of the answer choices were results of common miscalculations, the most common being 3.85/5.50 x 100 =70%. This is a very important calculation that has relevance in the real world, and is one often encountered in students' science classes called "percent error." Students' inabilities to put themselves into the problem, to recognize the familiarity of the calculation, or their haste in just "punching numbers" and circling the first answer choice they have been able to generate are all possible explanations.

The key to this problems is realizing that she is only saving the DIFFERENCE of the two brands by buying the cheaper, or $5.50 - $3.85 = $1.65. Since she bought the cheaper, we must look at the ratio of the savings to the one she did NOT buy. Multiplying by 100 puts it back into a percent: $1.65/$5.50 x 100 = 30% savings.

Since the results were returned and all problems gone over, most students realized how to obtain the solution to this problem and admitted that they should have got that one correct. To be sure, I have had similar types of problems for warm ups, but I've exchanged Janet's name with teachers from our campus, and I've had them purchasing various items from silk pajamas to cheap costume jewelry, to crew-cab diesel trucks. I've used similar tactics for other problem types that were missed on the benchmark.

The next most-frequently missed objective was Objective 10: Mathematical Processes and Tools and Objective 7: 2-D and 3-D Representations where 6 out of 70 (about 8.6%) missed at least one. I think the trouble arises here from student's reluctance to read carefully, draw pictures, and map out a sequence in multiple-stepped problems, all of which have dire consequences on each of my precalculus exams. They are slowly learning that the days of "plug and chug" type problems are gone, and that many problems require several steps, if not several sheets of paper. Labeled diagrams are tantamount to helping them devise a plan and in defining the variables of interest. In effect, they are learning the new standards of a game with greater expectations.

As they progress throughout the year, staying diligent in their coursework, and earnestly participating in the "warm up" problems that target remote, isolated skills that have atrophied, their TAKS skills will take care of themselves. Anything less than a commended status on their tests in April is reproachable and an object of solicitude.

I think it has become a matter of pride among my preAP students to do well on things they are expected to ace. It's MY tests they should respectfully fear and prepare for, NOT the TAKS test. It's MY job to keep pushing them increasingly further as they are increasingly capable, reviewing, reassessing, and redoubling my efforts, emphasizing excellence, diligence, and persistence.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Friday Night Lights

Last night, our football team improved to 12-0 with an impressive win over a San Antonio team who eliminated us last year from the post-season, and who went on to win the 4-A state title. Although the weather was a bit blistery, with light drizzle, our fans were out in full force--as usual.

The game took place in San Antonio, but it was rather remarkable, if not pathetic, how few fans showed for the opposing team. Those that DID come, arrived late perhaps because they lost track of time while they shopped local malls. Additionally, because of the good, old-fashioned thrashing we handed them, many of them left early, retreating to the nearest Starbucks to lick their wounds. OUR fans, however, came early, stayed late, and were loud the entire time, but that is part of our tradition. Yep, It felt pretty good last night to be associated with our school.

The school we played was from an affluent part of town, so one of the conjectures for the poor turnout was that many of the families were out of town for the Thanksgiving holidays, thinking that they'd surely get a chance to watch their beloved team the following week. Instead of being their to support their team, they were likely enjoying a skiing trip to Aspen (I can't say I'm not envious of THAT!) I wonder if the fans that WERE in attendance were real fans at all, and not some paid "stand ins" for the people in Aspen. Further evidence of this theory was reinforced when, during the presentation of the colors, just prior to the Star Spangled Banner, when there was a respectful quiet throughout the stadium, a fan from the opposing side gave loud, clear, vocal evidence of his uninhibited, doltish, impudent, unbridled fanatic fervor--something that caused quite an objection among all and mortification among his own people.

The paltry patronship on the part of the fans was not the only thing the other team was lacking: their band, too, was rather depleted. It appeared that they only had one representative instrument of each kind, except for the tuba section, in which case there was a surplus of TWO that produced ebullient, overpowering, unbalanced, cacophonies of commodes. I guess playing short-handed at a game over the holiday is typical, though, as even our OWN band was a bit understaffed, although proportionally so.

I was impressed, however, with the opposing fans I encountered at the end of the game. As we were loading our mascot onto the truck, many of the fans on the losing end were very gracious and congratulatory, expressing how well we played, and wishing us good luck throughout the rest of the playoffs. This goes to show that regardless of how disappointed you are with your football team losing, you've got to admire great effort, talent, coaching, and fan support when you see it. It's only the uninhibited, doltish, impudent, unbridled fan who doesn't appreciate good play on either side of the ball.

After all, this is what makes sports so fun to watch, at any level. How many people who weren't Bulls fans still respected Michael Jordan. I'm an NFC Cowboys fan, but Brett Favre is my favorite player. As much as you might hate the Yankees or Red Sox (or both), you can't help but appreciate the talents of Alex Rodriguez or Josh Beckett.

Anyways, next week, our team will take to the road to play the winner of today's match up in Corpus Christi. You can be sure that our fans will make the two hour trip, will be in the stands long before kick-off, will stay to the bitter end, and leave the game hoarse as can be from their incessant cheering, as they celebrate another victory on our way to the State Championship.

Three more wins to go!!!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Effluent Affluence

I just saw an interesting segment on the Today show on NBC. The segment was interesting enough to draw my attention from my daily ritual of counting misspellings in our local newspaper. It featured three homes that were currently on the market. A privileged reporter was given full access to the three sprawling properties, giving viewers at home a peek that both made your stomach turn in disgust in the ostentatious opulence, and your heart pine out of jealousy for that kind of pad. I even found myself saying reflexively at the end of the segment, "I'd take the first house!"

So what WAS the first house? It's called "Tranquility," and at $100,000,000 (that's one-hundred MILLION dollars), it is only the THIRD most expensive listing in the US (after two properties that Donald Trump is trying to unload at $125 and $135 million), but the most expensive in the segment. The seller is a co-founder of the Tommy-Hilfiger corporation, which would explain why the exterior is covered in plaid, not really, but that would give a buyer some negotiating power, don't you think? Anyway, the property's main residence is 25,000 square foot residence nestled on 210 pristine acres, although I doubt whether something that behemoth can nestle at all, in America's playground: Lake Tahoe.

The house features
its own fully-stocked private lake, conservatory, library crafted after the one in NYC, an elaborate staircase modeled after the Titanic's (minus the water damage), and boat house, stable, movie theater with seating for 20, an over sized basketball gymnasium, indoor (and oh yes, outdoor) swimming pools, garage space for 17 cars, and multiple views of Lake Tahoe and all the little people down below.

There are a total of 8 outbuildings on the property, totaling an additional 30,000 square feet, giving the new owner PLENTY of room for a riding lawnmower.
Sprinkled around the property throughout the densely forested lawn is a guest house, several caretakers residences, and art studio that resembles more of large museum. I believe I even saw a 400 square foot dog house.

Can you imagine living in a house that size?!! "Honey, let's take a vacation." "OK, where do you want to go?" "I was thinking of traveling to the Northeast wing of the house. We haven't been there in a while, and I know how much the kids love it there." "Speaking of the kids. . . . have you seen them? Last time I saw them, they were in Area 3, Sector 5, of the Superfluous wing."

The only downside to the property in my opinion, which would be the ONLY reason I might decline the property if it was given to me, is that it doesn't have a fully-furnished workshop, and that's pretty high on my checklist of things to consider when accepting free multi-multi-million dollars estates. Speaking of free. I don't think I could even afford a place like that for free. Imagine what the property taxes and the electrical bills would total! I doubt my would-be salary at nearby "Lake Tahoe High School" would be sufficient enough to pay for the operations of living. Then there's the salaries of all the people to stay in the caretakers' quarters. Maintenance and upkeep is a full-time job for several people. I think I could cut some corners on the cooking staff, but I'd definitely have to pay someone to dust. I would be so stressed out just trying to keep the utilities company from turning off the water and lights that I'd have to rename the property "Bedlam." Yep, I think it would be best if I just stay put on my humble two-acre estate with my coveted wood shop.

So who buys such properties? The show stated that the exorbitant price tag is even out of reach for Hollywood's movie stars, who can only afford homes in the low to mid millions. So if it's not high school math teachers or sliver screen celebrities, who in America has the resources to purchase a place like that? The real-estate corporation handling the transaction said that
prospective buyers could come from Europe, the Middle East or Asia. They already have an up on the property, as they've already shown the property to one of the top 5 billionaires the world. Although they did not give his name, they did say that he was dissatisfied with the plaid carpet.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Very Short List

Today is Thanksgiving, a day in which we are all supposed to do a little math and count our blessings. What the holiday has REALLY turned into, is a giant buffet with family members we don't see very often (sometimes for good reasons) and a precursor to the busiest shopping day of the year. In a world that is filled with tragedy, doom & gloom, cynicism, self-serving greed, and Rosie O'Donnell, there are still MANY, MANY things for which to be thankful. Here's a start of my list of reasons why I still enjoy waking up every morning, mornings which, in the future, I might just start off reading this blog.
  1. My beautiful wife and ALL that she is and ALL that she does.
  2. Passionate kisses (hmmmmm, what made me think of that?)
  3. My wonderful children who bring so much joy and frustration, but mostly joy.
  4. Gentle kisses on foreheads and soft, supple cheeks.
  5. Holding hands--big and little.
  6. Being able to teach mathematics to motivated students.
  7. The ability to run on my own two feet, knees, and legs.
  8. .mp3 players, without which, running on my own two feet, knees, and legs would really be a drag.
  9. Dancing with my daughter.
  10. Good books
  11. Good music
  12. Writing
  13. Strong, black, robust, hot coffee.
  14. Cold weather
  15. Soothing Hot Tubs
  16. Chiropractors
  17. The chance to be on television, or on a stage, or making a fool of myself to get some laughs.
  18. Breakfast tacos and chimichangas
  19. The majestic mountains and untainted wilderness
  20. Inside jokes
  21. Crew Cab trucks (or any other form of reliable transportation)
  22. Hope
  23. Mechanical pencils with really good erasers
  24. Cashews,Pop Tarts, and Skittles
  25. The soothing hum of a well-balanced, powerful table saw
  26. cordless drills
  27. Any show with Richard Dean Anderson
  28. The internet
  29. The new "duck quack" sound my daughter likes to make
  30. The gentle kindness and thoughtfulness of my son
  31. Large, random, anonymous deposits into my bank account
  32. P.J. O'Rourke, Gerry Spence, Scott Adams, and Dave Barry
  33. Bon Jovi, Morrissey, SRV, and Progressive Metal
  34. The voice of Andrea Bocelli
  35. Watching sports with my Dad
  36. The smell of burning cedar on a cool morning
  37. Sunday morning tennis matches
  38. crossword puzzles
  39. Nice people
  40. Advil
  41. ESPN Sportcenter
  42. Our dedicated troops and service men
  43. A loyal dog
  44. Opposable thumbs
  45. Ghost Hunters
  46. Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Jesus
  47. Swimming in other people's swimming pools
  48. People with great abs
  49. Pearl-snap shirts
  50. comfortable shoes
  51. An ice-cold Coke when you haven't had one in a while
  52. Dark chocolate
  53. The History Channel, Sci-Fi Network, and A&E
  54. My mom's great recipes
  55. Waterless cookware
  56. My wife's "magic" roast
  57. Looking at the stars through binoculars
  58. Talented musicians
  59. The poetry of Ogden Nash and Shel Silverstein
  60. A slice of deep dish supreme pizza
  61. Mountain Dew (the drink AND the precipitate)
  62. Quiet moments of solitude
  63. Wal-Mart Supercenters
  64. Small towns with a Dairy Queen
  65. The smell of kid's shampoo laying next to me
  66. Sauerkraut and Sausage
  67. Good beer
  68. Karaoke and Community Theater
  69. Trivial Pursuit
  70. Watching other people laugh
  71. Drives with the family through Texas Hill Country
  72. Watching my kids play
  73. Prancing in the rain
  74. Driving tractors
  75. Taking a walk with the family
  76. Friday nights when the grandparents keep the kids
  77. Clean bedsheets.
  78. Cold, purified drinking water
  79. The smell of leather
  80. Sweating from exercise or labor
  81. Air conditioning
  82. Driving standard transmission
  83. Larry Bird and Brett Favre
  84. Digital Cameras
  85. Rice Krispie Treats
  86. Freshly baked glazed donuts
  87. High-thrill roller coasters
  88. Buffalo Wings
  89. Large hard drives and fast processors
  90. Throwing a football
  91. Making funny faces
  92. Summer trips to the Coast
  93. Construction projects
  94. Clean bathrooms
  95. Free access to beautiful parks
  96. Climbing trees
  97. Sir Richard Branson's awesomeness
  98. Cornfield mazes
  99. A sweet, crisp, cored apple
  100. Making my wife smile
  101. High School Football
  102. My few close friends
  103. Learning, Loving, Laughing
I'm sure I missed thousands more, but this is a great start. What are YOU thankful for?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Calm Before the Storm

Today, my wife and I had the day off, which meant one thing--SHOPPING! Now I'm not much of a shopper, preferring to go get something when I need it, but a day out at the stores with the entire family is a great recreational event. It was very interesting to stroll through the major stores like Best Buy, Target, Kohl's, Academy, Home Depot, and Sam's Club as they prepare for "Black Friday."

As we shopped, we were almost ignored by the employees in each store as they frantically stacked hundreds of "video game rocker chairs," "Guitar Hero III" boxes, and an assortment of other items that will be on blowout sales price early Friday morning, as they boastfully complained to fellow employees about how "crazy" it was going to be.
This consumer frenzy seems like it is getting more extreme every year. Last year, my wife and I stood in line at Circuit City as they prepared to open at 5 a.m. Most people in the line that stretched around to the back of the store were in line for a $250 computer system. We were there just to "browse" and to observe the carnal greed exhibited among competing consumers.

THIS year, we noticed that Kohl's plans to open at 4 a.m. for what they call their "Early Bird" specials. I think there's going to be an uncontrollable throng pushing against the doors, trying to be the first to get that $5 coffee maker (limit 5 per person!) I bet within a couple of years, stores will be opening at midnight as they sell off their surplus of stainless steel colanders for 5 for a $1. I should probably start lining up for those now.

Speaking of lining up early, as we entered the Best Buy store at 10:30 am, there were two normal-looking dudes who were perched in lawn chairs right next to the entry doors. Apparently, they were already camped out so that they would be the first losers to enter the store on Friday morning (which was still 42.5 hours away.) I didn't even see a flier in the store which advertised what the store specials would be. I guess those guys aren't big fans of the Thanksgiving feast with family or watching football on TV through their eyelids, opting instead to save a couple hundred dollars on a high-def television to play their video games on. I hope their GIRLFRIENDS don't mind them spending the holidays on the pavement of a shopping center without them, oh wait . . . . . . . WHAT girlfriends?

At the end of the day, we did more browsing that we did buying, exhibiting tremendous will power and self-restraint--we never yelled at our children once! Instead, we used the day to observe others, to spend time with each other, and to sneak in a little exercise (I like to park in the most remote areas of the parking lots.) We had a lot of fun and quite a few laughs thinking about all the material things society thinks they need to buy just because they're on sale. It's quite humorous how people will buy ANYTHING if you limit it to 5 per person.

So I think we'll venture out again on Friday morning to watch the vultures swarm over the marked-down goods and to see just how many of them will leave their empty shopping carts next to their car in the parking lot, and how many of them will actually return them to the return stiles.

Yep, today was definitely the calm before the storm.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Limericks a la Math

Here are some limericks I've collected from students over the years as part of an assignment that forces them out of their comfortable "mathematical" zone. Many claim they don't know how to rhyme or be witty, but they often surprise themselves when you give them no other option. See if you can see a thematic tone developing.

There once was a logarithmic function
Who crossed another at some junction
But they ne’er introduced
So we now must deduce
That they both are filled with compunction.--Korpi

There was a Precalculus student
Who knew how to study, but wouldn’t
So by logs he got burned
And a lesson he learned:
“To study for tests is quite prudent.”--Korpi

Math is a subject I really don’t get.
When I don’t understand, I throw a big fit.
Logs are a real bore.
Everyone hates them, hard core.
Never will my light bulb upstairs be lit.

Everyday in Precalculus class.
The problems make me collapse
My mind always fries
And then comes the time
That I wish I had a hall pass.

Math is definitely not fun
It makes me cry, scream, and run
It doesn’t make sense
It makes me feel dense
To escape it, I’d become a nun

There once was a guy named Ben
He understood log base 10
Then Korpi gave “e”
And, Oh, gaaw-lee
Now Ben shouts out words that offend.

There once was an algebra teacher

Who taught math like a great Baptist preacher
He thought functions were life
And it freaked out his wife
And his graphs were his best looking feature.

Precalculus is a pain in my rear
Logarithms and exponents I fear.
I’d rather go home and sleep
Than look at my test scores and weep.
I wish the end of this year were here.

I know of a teacher of math
Who nary had taken a bath
He took pleasure from pain
We took tests in vain
And few were the friends that he hath.

Math is subject I don’t understand
Everything about it is just so bland
Logarithms are dumb
I’d rather chew gum
But I do what my parents command.

Three plus one equals four
Please just let me walk out the door\
My brain is hurting
I’m sick of girls flirting
I just want to give to the poor.

There once was a student named Nate
Failing Precal was his fate.
His stupidity was his demise
His thoughts never wise
So he ended up selling fish bait.

There once was a math book

To school I would never took
From it I could not learn
So unto it I set burn
Oh, yes, its pages did cook.

As a student of the precalculus way
I am forced to study each day
Equations and graphs
Which poses such a task
Often making me feel like running away

Monday, November 19, 2007

Lesson in Tragedy

Yesterday, our High School and community experienced a tragic loss. A former student and daughter of one of our assistant principals lost her life in a one-car accident on the freeway. Her loss has still not quite set in, even after I spent the entire day among grieving faculty and coworkers.

We ALL miss her and are personally saddened by the loss of such a bright, promising young woman, but I can't imagine how the immediate family must feel, although the thoughts have now been pervading my mind since I found out late last night.

It's easy to shelter yourself against tragedy when you read about it or hear it on the news, but it is so sobering when it happens so near to you. You suddenly realize that things like this DO happen, and are not just things that happen to others. It really puts your life back into perspective and makes you reassess the truly important things in life and why you do what you do.

Having two young children, including my little 4-year-old princess, it is difficulty for me think that bad things can happen to her, or to my son. My initial reaction, of course, was to bring them in tightly, squeezing them like I never wanted to let them go. I want to protect them from everything . . . . .but I can't. No one can, and efforts to do so only insulate them from the real experiences that help them grow, learn, and enjoy their own life.

The risks are part of the game. To live in constant fear is not to live at all. All we can hope for is to make ALL the moments count, teach them well, watch them bloom, and keep our fingers cross as they walk out the door.

Elizabeth Stone once said that to be a parent is to have your heart go walking around outside your body. She nailed it.
Last night, I laid very close to my daughter all night, holding her, sneaking peeks at her precious, innocent, sleeping face, gently touching her perfect skin, stroking her silky little hair that smelled of strawberries. It took me a while to fall asleep, and when I did, I dreamed about the tragedy and the fragility of life, and woke up exhausted.

I was a bit more careful as I drove my children to their grandmother's house, and took more time telling them goodbye, for just the day, I hoped, but I couldn't be sure.

It is an awful shame that it takes a tragedy for us break the routine of our daily grind, which we too easily confuse with "our lives," to open our eyes what living REALLY is, and to what REALLY is important. Death leaves a void that nothing can fill, but LOVE creates memories that nothing can steal.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Did you hear about Joe Horn in Pasedena, Texas who, earlier this week, fatally shoot two intruders who were burglarizing his NEIGHBOR's house in broad daylight. Apparently, he called 911 to alert them to what he was going to do. Here's what I imagined the phone call went like:

Dispatcher: Hello, 911, how may I direct your call?
Horn: Trigger-happy vigilante department, please. And make it snappy, I'm in a hurry.
Dispatcher: I can help you with that sir. What seems to be the problem?
Horn: My neighbor is out of town, so I've been reading his papers, checkin' his mail, and keepin' an eye on the place, and right now, there's two guys over there snoopin' around. I'm gonna shoot those bastards. Should I use a pistol, rifle, or my shotgun?
Dispatcher: Excuse me sir, do you realize how unethical it is to read someone else's morning papers?
Horn: Oh Sh*t, I think they're about to leave, and they ain't carryin' nothing to slow 'em down, so I better act fast. Shotgun it is . . .
Dispatcher: Sir, I have sent a squad car to investigate, but about the newspapers, you really shouldn't . . .
Horn: Ah, Hell. Shoot first, think . . . never.
Dispatcher: Uh, sir. What is you neighbor's name?
Horn: I dunno. We don't get along much. He thinks I'm takin' his newspapers and lettin' my pit-bull poop in his yard. . . . you hear that? That's the sound of my barrel clickin' closed. I've gotta shoot these guys, they're almost to the street.
Dispatcher: Go get 'em sir. This IS Texas. You have a right to protect your property AND your neighbor's with deadly force. Good choice on the shotgun. I'll be waiting on the phone when you get back. Did you know it's a federal crime to go through someone else's mail.

Was Mr. Horn within his rights? Was this justifiable homicide? I know that I would like to think that I would be prepared to defend my home and family, but in Mr. Horn's case, I don't think I could justify doing what he did, not that I don't like my neighbors, but since their was apparently no imminent harm to human life. Protecting yourself and your family (and I guess even your possessions, to a much lesser degree) is one thing. Using deadly force to protect an empty house when police were en route is altogether different. But if what Mr. Horn did was immoral, was it illegal? As I've been told, Texas law DOES allow one to defend one's property or the property of a neighbor with deadly force.

Later, Mr. Horn DID express regret, and maintains that he DID fear for his life?
Ahh, yes, the mind DOES have a way of trying to rationalize behavior ex post facto. What do you think?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Multitasking Quickly

Today is a very busy day. It already HAS been, and will become increasingly so. Not only do I have 6 class sets of exams to grade (see yesterday's post), but tonight is our first football playoff game. Being a mascot hauler, we usually leave a little early to get a bite to eat and to arrive at the game in plenty of time for the athletes to warm up. Today, we're leaving extra early--immediately after school. Not only does this mean that my son will be stranded at his school over the weekend (actually, his grandfather is supposed to get him), but I'll barely have time after school to change into my shorts before we're expected to move on out.

With tonight's game being in Northeast Austin, I don't expect us getting back until very late this evening, approaching extremely early tomorrow morning. Right now, I'm on my conference period, grading papers, listening to Killswitch Engage (a band), drinking coffee, looking at what I'll be teaching today in BC calculus and PreAP Precalculus, getting my quoteboard ready, and checking on my mentee's grades (with whom I will be meeting with very shortly.) As you can imagined, I'm on a very tight schedule. I'm going to grade a few tests now. I'll be right back . . .

OOOOOOOO, those grades were not so good. Maybe if I blog a little while, the grades will improve when I return. DANG! My mentee did NOT turn in his late project in Spanish II. How a native Spanish speaker can be failing a Spanish II class, yo no entiende!. Ahhhhh, that's a great quote for my quoteboard. Man I love this song! Dang it, now I dribbled coffee on my shirt jamming out to the song.

Note to self: before headbanging, set coffee cup down, as this tends to cause coffee to violently leave the relative proximity of the cup itself, potentially splashing all over the clothes you have no time to change and will have to wear ALL NIGHT LONG since you are leaving right after school. Alright, this student got a question correct! Should I give bonus points, naaaaah. Maybe I would have BEFORE I spilled my coffee. Man my poor little mentee is going to get the brunt of my spilled-coffee wrath for not turning in that skeleton project.

How many things can YOU do at once? How many of those can you do WELL at once?

Gotta go now . . . . . right after this rockin' song.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

It's About Time!!

This week is the last six weeks of our second six-weeks grading period, with an additional two days thrown in next Monday and Tuesday prior to a much needed 3-day Holiday for Thanksgiving. This year, I'm giving thanks to deadlines, for without them, very little would ever get done.

The last week of a grading period is always filled with stress, anxiety, and a renewed sense of urgency among students and teachers alike. Some students are trying to finish unit projects, while others are desperately trying to salvage their grade by completing work that should have been done six weeks ago. Teachers, realizing that they need to squeeze in another test have ALL decided to give one at the last minute.

Part of the problem is that 6 weeks grading cycles are too short for classes that only meet every other day. In any given grading cycle, individual classes only meet about 15 times. As a requirement, at least two exams must be given each cycle. Since my tests are cumulative, comprehensive, and HARD, they not only require and entire 90 minute period to complete, but I typically spend the entire class period immediately preceding the test doing nothing but review. This leaves 15 - 4 = 11 days for actual instruction.

How are THESE remaining days spent? Well, typically, we need to spend at least a half day per exam going OVER the exam, so that's another day (now down to 10.) We are also required to have at least 4 quiz grades per cycle. I design each quiz to be short, about 15 minutes, but in reality, they stretch into 20 minute range, plus the 10 minutes it takes me to go over the quiz. Because I typically quiz every other day, I get 5 quizzes in each cycle. This form of assessment, then, accounts for 5(20+10) = 150 minutes of class period, or one and two-thirds full class periods. This leaves 10 - 1 2/3 = 8 1/3 classes every six weeks for teaching new material. This means that assessment accounts for slightly less than half the total time spent in class, and incidentally accounts for 90% of their grade (40% quizzes and 50% tests.)

The final 8 1/3 days are usually broken up by intercom announcements, deliveries from the front office, fire drills, stay-in-place drills, tornado drills, Alien-attack drills, pep-rallies, group panoramic photos, not to mention the multitude of student events like athletics or band that require several students to be absent on any given day. We are NOW even required to practice School Bus evacuation TWICE a year--everyone!

Of the students who are actually in class the 8 1/3 days of instruction, we spend the first 5 minutes of class doing a review "warm up" and 20 minutes of clarifying problems from the previous night's homework. This adds up to 8 1/3 * 25 = 208 1/3 minutes of class time, or about 2 1/3 full classes. This really leaves only 8 1/3 - 2 1/3 = 6 full class periods for delivering new information. Because of the required 2 tests, this means students are tested over information they have learning in only 6/2 = 3 class periods, not a great deal of information by any rigorous academic standards.

Because there is a particular scope to each course, we teachers are consequently accelerating our pace, tying to give quality, in-depth meaning to a multitude of topics in a very short time frame, teaching bell-to-bell. This places a great deal of responsibility on the students' shoulders for being diligent in their individual practice: doing their homework, taking good notes, reading their book, and coming in for help unsolicited.

But teachers feel the severe pinch as well, and it only feels like it's getting tighter. With so many students falling under Individual Educational Acronym Plans (IEAPs), and policy changes that require teachers to do more and more for students who are doing less and less, making the precious few minutes in the classroom count is becoming very difficult, not to mention increasingly unfulfilling.

So this week while teachers are creating and grading tests, and while students are presumably cramming in information for each class, the Earth will continue to spin at 1000 miles per hour on its axis, as it travels 68,000 miles per hour through space in its orbit around the sun, as the Aliens in outer space look down at our celestial ball, laughing at our struggles while they plan their attack.

I hope they attack during a school day, 'cause with all the practice drills we've done, we'll certainly be ready for them.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

An Unforgetable Lesson

When I started writing this Blog, I felt I had a lot to say, so writing it was a very natural part of my day. Putting my words down on virtual paper was even a cleansing experience for me, even if no one every read them. I imagined that the novelty of the writing experience would wear off, and that forcing myself to write daily would become a chore, but I was up for the self-discipline to fit it into my crazy-busy schedule, and I was willing to accept the burden of trying to be humorous. I have to say now, that after 60 consecutive entries (taking only one day off per week to see my wife and kids), I'm too the point where I don't prioritize this activity.

For starters, I was hoping that the entire Blog experience would be more interactive. I originally imagined that I'd get a chance to read the comments of others who were interested. When comments were not coming, I began telling others about the blog, although I felt somewhat shameful doing so. When word of mouth did not work, I sent out an informative, yet apologetic, email to everyone in my email addresses which included those of students I had in class years ago, former colleagues who were now retired or in another state, and people I haven't seen since high school.

I invited everyone to read without obligation, to comment without restraint, and to enjoy my little gift to them. Very few accepted my invitation or relished my free gift.
Undeterred, I wrote on, daily, thinking that eventually friends of friends of acquaintances of strangers would eventually hear about the "funny, insightful, math guy" and would just HAVE to check out the blog, which, after reading and recovering from laughter-induced abdominal pain, would feel compelled to leave a comment. Heck, I was even eagerly anticipating negative comments, or rude insults, or even vulgar ultimatums, but to no avail--I think their keyboards are unplugged, because I'm not getting their feedback, good or bad. Maybe they're just not hitting the keys hard enough, or maybe, they're just not hitting the keys at all. But. . . . I'm . . . . OK. I'll . . . . . . be OK.

I'll keep pecking at MY keyboard, squeezing in thirty minutes here and there simply out of personal conviction. I gave up giving up long, long ago when my dad called me a quitter (at the time, I thought giving up smoking was a GOOD idea--only kidding.)
What I REALLY wanted to quit was junior-league football in 5th grade, not because I didn't like getting tackled, but because we NEVER won a game.

Digressing sufficiently, our last game of the season was in Lockhart, and were entering the game at 0-8. I told my dad that I didn't want to go to the game because losing had lost its thrill. He TOTALLY lost it! I remember him shaking his finger, with his eyes bulging, skin as red as a beet, while he angrily muttered through clenched teeth, "you'll never be anything but a quitter!!! (triple exclamation point)" I felt very small, worthless, and pathetic. My poor attitude was obviously a tremendous disappointment to my father, as it was apparently my pattern of youth.

What I viewed as a chance to experiment with new situations and notions, my father must have seen as my fickleness and lack of commitment. Anyway, he honored my decision NOT to go to the game (which we ended up losing.) I really ended up feeling horrible that I wasn't there at the game to curse frustrated obscenities with the rest of my team.
Since that day, I have been overly-committed to a fault, taking many a bad idea to an unnecessarily painful level, but it has also kept me driven and focused. Not a day goes by when I don't hear those words from 23 years ago resonating in my head. In fact, they are becoming quite a distraction RIGHT NOW as I'm trying to "QUIT. . . ." err C O N T I N U E typing.

And so it is, that I keep typing away, day after day to any empty, vacuous cyber-crowd, lest I become what every every son fears to be in the eyes of his father--a blogger-giver-upper.
Thanks, dad for your powerful, unforgettable lesson so many years ago. Today, I am doing my best to pass the same values of diligence, persistence, and commitment to MY son . . . . . . which is why he's still sitting at the dinner table right now trying to finish his cold broccoli . . . . . from yesterday!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Last night, the seniors held their first annual Theme Dinner as a fund raiser for a project they have been working on the last 11 + years: Project Graduation. Groups of seniors banded together and dressed up in a common group theme, invited their parents, favorite teachers, and rich businessmen to sit at a large table, where the students, in full costume, served their patrons delicious barbecue and unsweetened tea.

Being a fund raiser, there were many opportunities to empty your wallet, beginning with the $15 ticket that was required upon acceptance of the invitation. There was also a silent auction (which I, not surprisingly, did not know anything about) and "unicorn bucks" that could be purchased at a 1:1 exchange rate for US greenbacks and used at ongoing tips to the student servers. There were also opportunities to buy $10 chances to win $100, and a large bowl for random donations for those individuals who just wanted to give without the sport.

Being invited as a member of the "favorite teacher" category listed above, I came without any cash or loose coins. All I had to give was my sparkling conversation and charming wit, but that didn't win any auction items. I figured that as long as most people around me were giving, I'd be OK just riding out the value of my pre-paid $15 ticket, and mooch off the good-times atmosphere.

Our table was in honor of 5 young girls whose theme was the "Spice Girls." Spooky, Baby, Sporty, Ginger, and Posh did a great job of playing the parts and keeping the tea glasses filled. In fact they were so convincing, that if they didn't get a record deal based on their looks, that any local restaurant would give them a contract for waiting tables.

Aside from dinner and chatter, the entertainment of the night featured Karaoke and dramatic enactments based on students' various themes. Kicking off the Karaoke, which is very hard to perform or listen to without the aid of intoxicating spirits, were our very own Spice girls. Going first is a very daunting task, especially sober, but our girls pulled it off like they had been practicing for at least two days. They sang the words perfectly in sync and even added a little attitude, flair, and some dance moves to boot. They received a nice roar and applause upon leaving the stage.

The singing went downhill from there. There was a mumbled, out-of-key version of a beloved country song, an awkward, monotonic version of a classic rock song, and an almost mute version of song from the 50s. The perceptive DJ was pretty quick to pull the plug on the song after the first verse or two, after which a raucous applause always followed. To whom we were actually applauding, I will let you guess.

There were, however, some bright spots on the stage. A delightful young female sang a song from the upcoming school musical, and large group of "lumberjacks" acted out a song from "The Police," strumming their axes as if they were, well, axes. The most outrageous group of the night were a very proud, confident group of Luchadors, dressed in full tight tights, no shirt, a cape, and a wrestling mask. They sung a very unsuspecting version of "The Lion Sleeps tonight" complete with falsetto riffs that were made easier to sing because of their aforementioned tight tights--an unforgettable image.

All during the evening, members from our table were encouraging me and a couple of other "favorite teachers" to sing a song. They used our lack of contributions to the other financial vehicles during the evening as leverage against our consciences. Apparently, If non-student members from a table sang a song, points/dollars accumulated for that table would be doubled!! What a great way to contribute after all, we thought. Their pressuring worked.

As the final Karaoke act, Mr. Wenzel, Mr. Woolbert, and I climbed the stage, took the microphones in hand an proceeded to bring the house down with our rendition of Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" (click here for video.) I don't think anyone suspected that we were closet rappers or that we would actually know the words and associated dance moves--including US, ourselves! Our intention was to get in a single verse and one chorus, then they'd pull the plug, and we'd be back at our tables within a couple of minutes. As it turned out, we were apparently doing such a great job that they let the song run on and on and on and on and on. The three and and half minute song seemed to go on forever. Everyone was certainly getting their money worth that night!

At the end of the night, everyone had a good time, the rich businessmen bought all the items in the silent auction, and the teachers went back home to their humble homes to grade papers and practice their secret talents.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Grading Policy Explained

A while back, I got an email from a college professor who needed some mathematical assistance devising a grading policy for his German class. I tried to really understand what he ultimately wanted to accomplish, then work the math around it. Having taken several college courses that had a predetermined number of points built into them, I was vaguely familiar with the grading scheme he wanted, although I thought it was overly sophisticated, especially for an entry-level foreign language class. It would have actually been appropriate for and advanced math class, in which you automatically get an A in the class, if you can actually calculate your grade based on the confusing criteria. Below is my correspondence with the professor. Dr. "Fictitious German Name,"

I first apologize for being so busy this afternoon that I couldn't give your concern the full attention that it deserved. I had a terribly busy day, and was so at the time you came by my classroom to speak with me, and had several issues on my mind at the time.

Since then, I've had a chance to digest your dilemma. Here's what I found.

If I understood you correctly, by scaling the course to 100 points and making the sum of 6 tests equal to 66, you are making test performance 66% of your course. By giving students 34 "free" points, you are basically saying that if students "earn" all of the "free" points, it is possible that they need only retain or master 70-34 = 36% of the material and still pass with a 36+34 = 70%.

Also, assuming you distribute the 34 "free" points among the six tests to 7,7,5,5,5,5, you simply cannot add these to the Percentage score of, say 80, to get the new score, because the 80 is on the 100 point scale, and the 7 or 5 is on the 11 point scale. Adding 7 points, say, to a percentage score of 80, really adds:

7/100 = ?/11 ==> ? = 77/100= 0.77

This is less than a point on the 11 point scale.

However, adding the 7 "free" points on the 11-point scale (which is appropriate to the grading scheme) amounts to:

7/11 = ?/100 ==> ?=700/11 = 64 points to a 100 point exam!!

If tests are only worth 11 points, and you are giving 7 points free (out of the 34), you are giving a bonus (arithmetic shift) so that students who score perfectly ( 11 out of 11 plus 7) an 18 out of 11 (18/11 = 164) a 164 on the test.

If I misunderstood your scheme, forgive me for pointing these things out, but if I am correct, here is what I suggest:

Simplify the process. If you already grade the exams on a percentage scale, treat the whole course as such; otherwise, grade the exams on an an 11 point scale and reduce the number of "free" points students can earn (thereby making tests worth more). If you think 8 points is fair to add on a 100 point scale, use this to weight your tests to a 100 point course: the math here gets complicated

8/100 = x/y where x is the number of free points on y point scale (per test). Solving for x, we get: x = 8y/100

given this, the amount of free points per test, x, assuming they are evenly divided among the 6 tests is x = (100 - 6y)/6

setting the two equations for x equal to each other, we get:

8y/100=(100 - 6y)/6. solving for y gives 15.432...

So, you should make each test worth 15 or 16 points, leaving 100 - 6*15 = 100-90 = 10 points to divide freely among the 6 tests (perhaps 2,2,2,2,1,1). Here, by adding 2 points on a 15 point scale, you are really adding ?/100 = 2/15 ==> ? = 13 points on a 100 point scale. If you choose 16 point tests, this leaves 100-6*16 = 4 points to distribute to 6 tests (perhaps 1,1,1,1,0,0). Here, adding 1 point to a 16 point test is like adding ?/100 = 1/16 ==> ? = 6 to a test.

This is a very complicated scheme.

What I would suggest is to grade the entire course on a percentage, as you do the tests.

You can still make tests worth 66 points out of 100 total. Have a "test" category, such that the average grade of the tests (on a 100 point scale) is worth 66% of the grade (test average times .66). Then you can set an "other" category for the remaining 34%. You now have the flexibility to assign them a percentage grade for other. Say a student isn't participating much, so you give him a 70% in the other category, and the same student makes an 80% on his test. His current average would be 70*.34 + 80*.66 = 23.8 + 52.8 = 76.6 average.

Or if the student is earning all the free points, but still makes an 80 on the test, they are rewarded because their current average would be a 100*.34 + 80*.66 = 34 + 52.8 = 86.8.

I hope all of this makes sense and helps.

Again, I and assuming a lot here, based upon how I understood you. If I can be of further assistance, please let me know.


Herr Korpi

Well, did you follow all that? As it turned out, he was clueless about how to set up his grading scheme, which is why he contacted me to begin with. He did not want me to do the math to fit his scheme, but rather to suggest a simple scheme, like I did above. He eventually went with my suggestion and focussed his attention to Deutsch Sprachen.

In the end, I got a nice loaf of Frisches Brot (Fresh Bread) for my troubles, and his students got a grading scheme that wasn't a foreign language to them. Just doing my job.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Fun with lies and plastic

I missed my usual Saturday post on this blog because I spent the entire day with my wife (she looks like the model to the left, only better looking) and two wonderful kids . . . . . . CHRISTMAS SHOPPING!!!!

Today is only November 11th, which means I was playing Santa Claus a good month and a half early. I know the stores jumped right to Christmas decorations the day after Halloween, as Thanksgiving is not a big commercial holiday, and the radio stations began their "holiday music mix" last week, but this is the earliest I have ever gone out to buy gifts for loved ones and not-so-loved-ones-who-still-expect-a-gift. I give my wife FULL credit. She has her stuff DOWN!!

She has a list containing the names of each and every one we need a gift for. We sat down before we ever hopped into the car Saturday morning and decided on an appropriate gift for everyone on it. We then went through the advertising "blow ins" from the previous Sunday paper to see what was on sale, and what was "chic" this year (the word, "chic," inadvertently is NOT "wac" or "fly" these days.)

So we took out the third seat in the humungo SUV and hit the shopping centers with list and coupons (and kids) in tow. I was surprised at how efficient the entire experience was. Our first stop (Cost Co) yielded 80% of the gifts we needed and an additional 80% of impulse buys.

The kids had previously gone through catalogs from Toys-R-Us, Target, and Wal-Mart and circled everything they wanted out of the flyers. We SHOULD have just told them to circle everything they did NOT want, then NOT handed them a writing utensil. Anyway, by the time we hit the stores, they easily recognized EVERYTHING on the shelves. Well, it's not that easy putting a huge box containing a wooden doll house big enough to raise our property taxes into a jumbo shopping cart without either of our two perceptive kids noticing, so my wife and I had a plan.

As the kids spied everything on the shelves, they said, "OOOOOH, that's what I want. OOOOOOH, that's what I circled. OOOOOOH, what is that? I want two of them?" We would reply curtly with, "Ask Santa," then we'd give each other that look that determined if we'd actually get it. After all the impulse buys and gifts for others were in the basket, my wife and I would take turns taking the kids to the car or to the bathroom or to look at the variety of tobacco products (whatever worked), while the other one raced back through the store loading all the kid's gifts into the baskets and to the checkout.

One swipe of the plastic later, we were loading the booty into the back of the car while the kids were strongly encouraged to buckle themselves into their seats while maintaining perfect forward-facing posture. A timely false exclamation of "Hey, look at that chicken nugget restaurant over there" bought us enough time to get their gifts loaded and covered with extra empty shopping bags we were able to talk the cashier into giving us.

And so went the entire day as we hopped from store to store, filling up the cargo space in the SUV, checking people off our list of "gifts to buy," and filling up our kid's heads with clever, deceptive lies. It was a great day. I feel rather proud now that when people ask me how my Christmas shopping is coming that I can say, "nearly done!"

I've got to give my wife all the credit, as I'm usually inspired at the last minute by whatever happens to be near the register of the closest store. Yep, a logically planned-out, mathematically, systematic style is the way to go. Getting things done early not only alleviates stress, but it gives you much longer to pay off the credit card bill.

Next week, I was told that we're going Easter shopping. Dollar General apparently has their Cadbury Creme Eggs on liquidation sale from last year.